The paradox of purpose – freedom to communicate

I walked into the lobby of a telco consulting client last week. The welcome mat had printed upon it the brand promise to their customers: “Complete freedom”. (I’ve tweaked the wording to protect their identity. The meaning is the same.)

Freedom. Who could be against it? And who would want incomplete freedom? When users buy broadband, they will have a mix of specific applications in mind for immediate use; they also know that there will be new ones that they will want to try out in future. Hence freedom carries a high value.

The ultimate communication “freedom machine” would be a Star Trek teleporter for data. It would let us transfer arbitrarily large amounts of data, to anywhere in the universe, instantaneously, and at no marginal cost. That is the perfected ideal of freedom to communicate that we aspire towards.

In the real world, we inevitably fall short of this teleportation ideal. The network is always a shared and finite statistically multiplexed resource. It is dependent on certain randomness properties of demand and supply to work. We have to live with physical constraints: the speed at which we can transmit data over transmission links; and our ability to schedule the load contending for those links.

Since reality falls short of science fiction, we seek not one, but two forms of freedom. We not only desire freedom to connect, we also want freedom from contention. The effects of other people communicating on this shared system erode our own freedom, and all our communications erodes theirs. In other words, all packets are pollution – to other network users. We have met the enemy, and it is us!

So these two freedoms – to and from – are clearly in tension. Our overall freedom as communicators is only as good as the collective interaction of these two phenomena.

Now comes the paradox of purpose: the “freedom to connect” is antithetical to revealing our purpose in communicating, since it only invites rent-seeking behaviour from the network owner; but the “freedom from contention” is wholly dependent on knowing our purpose in order to make good resource allocation choices and deliver an acceptable user experience and cost.

We can’t have it both ways!

So the industry’s message of complete freedom is selling a lie: incomplete freedom to communicate is all that is on offer in this imperfect world. We must engage in a perpetual re-examination of how we balance these freedoms, and how much purpose we reveal. Our individual desire for the freedom to connect is contending with the greater good of the networked community as a whole.

At the moment, the balance appears to be shifted a long way from what is desirable. We reward greedy network users, and punish graceful ones. The polluter doesn’t pay, and everyone suffers from the consequent contention and cost. Yet we want to deploy ever more applications that are sensitive to the pollution of other peoples’ packets.

To enjoy continued communications freedom, we will paradoxically have to reveal a little more of our purpose.

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